It started with the record number of ambassadors arriving from Washington via private flight (Donald Trump’s 727 jet) for the 53rd annual ball on Jan. 30 at Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club, the 126-room ocean-side palazzo once owned by event founder and cereals heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post. Resplendent in their colorful orders, medals, and sashes, a dozen envoys joined their spouses, ball co-chairmen, and Red Cross bigwigs to greet more than 400 guests in a receiving line that one blasé boulevardier claimed was “even longer than the one at the Shah of Iran’s state dinner for Haile Selassie.”
Well aware of the risk of being out-bedazzled by so much diplomatic regalia (“all earned rather than bought,” another wag remarked), the town’s well-heeled society ladies could always be counted upon to gild the lily by topping their couture gowns and parures with bejeweled tiaras. Not so this time. Only a few low-key crowned heads were in evidence – the reason being that the old guard grandes dames (Mary Lou Whitney, Jane Dudley, Candy Van Alen, et al.) who once took their inherited diadems out of the vault for the occasion have either died or retired from the scene. In addition, the practice of borrowing glitzy headpieces from Cartier, Van Cleef and Arpels, and Harry Winston has mostly come to an end because the great jewelry houses are no longer sponsoring balls or even advertising in their programs in these recessionary times.
The trumpeting heralds announcing dinner were in place as always this year, as was the military honor guard that escorted the dignitaries into the grand ballroom to the sounds of – big change here – “The Caisson Song” – instead of the usual “Pomp and Circumstance” or the “Triumphal March” from Aida. If envoys from Egypt, Afghanistan and other nations realized they were promenading to martial airs of the U.S. Army’s fighting anthem (“Over hill, over dale, we have hit the dusty trail …”), they were too circumspect to let on.
Well aware that jaded philanthropists start twitching ruefully in their seats after more than ten minutes of speechifying – the party is always the thing in Palm Beach – organizers kept their welcoming remarks mercifully brief. After a short appearance by ball co-chairman Michele Kessler and American Red Cross Chairman Bonnie McElveen Hunter, there was a short film about the Red Cross mission – but not too much in the way of extra pitches for support on account of the recent tragedy in Haiti.
“Brevity is the long suit here,” McElveen-Hunter said later, noting nonetheless that “the glamour of the moment makes it easy to forget that the event’s purpose is to help those most vulnerable” to wars, natural disasters, and other catastrophes throughout the world.
Despite the economy, despite Bernie Madoff, Palm Beach delivered in the end with more than $1 million raised for the Red Cross. Another $235,000, earmarked for Haitian earthquake relief efforts, was raised when Mrs. Kessler’s husband, affinity credit card king Howard Kessler, challenged guests to buy $1,000 bottles of Dom Perignon from a supply he had personally donated. (Mr. Trump donated $100K of the total.)
Dinner was delayed by a somewhat deafening performance by Grammy-Award-winning crooner Steve Tyrell from New York’s Café Carlyle (blame it on over-amplification and too much marble on the walls), after which crabmeat timbale, pecan-encrusted rack of lamb, and strawberry shortcake were served to the accompaniment of ’tween-course fox trots, rhumbas, and rock ’n’ roll numbers by the Jimmy Vali Swing Orchestra. The crowd always warms to the music and the sight of swirling ball gowns and tailcoats, flashing diplomatic sashes, and the inevitable hunt for a lost earring or cufflink makes for quite a show. Champagne continues to flow freely after dessert and at least one tipsy dowager can usually be spotted spinning out of control on the dance floor, usually with a much younger escort.
The biggest change of all was switching from an all-powerful chairman to a triumvirate of three, including two from Palm Beach and one from Washington. Mrs. Kessler, Susan Keenan, wife of prominent businessman James Keenan (and the former host of the old “Panorama” TV show in Washington back when she was married to Barry Goldwater Jr.) did the local honors with Mary Mochary, a former State Department official serving as liaison to the diplomatic crowd as well as other prospective Washington, D.C.-area guests.
“The diplomatic presence is one of the ball’s big attractions, so it’s important to spread the net further with a Washington component,” Mochary said, noting that at least 50 guests with capital connections had attended the $1,000-per-person (minimum price) event.
Those with Washington ties included Mrs. McElveen Hunter (who was generally credited the force behind saving the ball from extinction after years of backbiting and infighting among previous chairmen); former U.S. Chief of Protocol Nancy Goodman Brinker (who ran the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, named in honor of her late sister, in West Palm Beach that morning with 24,000 other participants); former ambassador to Denmark and ball protocol chief Stuart Bernstein and wife Wilma; ball protocol chief emeritus Marion “Joe” Smoak (attending for the 37th time); Mandy and Mary Ourisman; Ahmad and Judy Esfandiary; superlawyer Robert S. Bennett and wife Elaine; Bill and Norma Tiefel; Mike and Julie Connor; Braddock and Denise Alexander; Stephania Conrad; Dr. Milton Corn and Gilan Tocco Corn; Phil and Carol Kuehl; Karon Cullen and Rick Meyer; Dr. Michael Olding; Susie Broyhill (wife of the late Rep. Joel T.Broyhill of Virginia); Climis and Carol Lascaris; author Ron Kessler and wife Pamela; and the ambassadors of Monaco, Hungary, Slovenia, Luxembourg, Denmark, Sweden, Ireland, Mexico, Cyprus, and Malaysia.
The seniority system is just as hallowed in Palm Beach as it is in Congress, which was one reason why social legend Mildred “Brownie” McLean, daughter-in-law of Hope Diamond owner Evalyn Walsh McLean, led the list of local luminaries with an attendance record of 40-plus Red Cross Balls and counting. Other Palm Beachers spotted on the scene included Lois Pope, the philanthropist widow of National Enquirer publisher Generoso Pope; Kate Ford, widow of Henry Ford II; Judy Grubman, John Mashek, Cortwright Wetherill Jr. and Janis Wetherill; Cynthia Boardman, and Sen.Bill Nelson (D-Fla.).